Changes being made to revamped meal plan, flex dollars

Jessica Newbacher
Changes to the university meal plans will alter what can be purchased using meal plan equivalencies, including restricting their use for merchandise at Starbucks.

Beginning this semester, students may no longer use their meal plan equivalencies to purchase bagged coffee and merchandise at the University Market Starbucks. Meal equivalencies may still be used to purchase food and beverages at the café, but merchandise can only be purchased with cash, credit, or flex dollars.
The past semester, students have been using their meal equivalency towards merchandise at Starbucks which, according to Dave Jensen, director of auxiliary services, was not the intention. “Meal equivalency was never meant for the merchandise,” said Jensen. “When we became aware of that we decided this wasn’t how we scripted this.”
Bill Reniff, vice president of finance and administration, said eliminating meal equivalency expenditure on merchandise aids in “an education for the kids.”
Reniff said when students first come to college, they are typically responsible for their financial spending for the first time in their lives, which can cause issues to students who spend their money on items such as Starbucks merchandise.
“When kids come to school for the first time as freshmen, it’s the first time they really have to be financially responsible,” said Reniff. “So, we have some kids take their flex dollars and spend it all to buy a computer when we sold computers or stuff like that, and then towards the end of the semester, they couldn’t feed themselves. We didn’t want the same thing to happen at Starbucks. That’s not what [the meal plan] is meant for. It’s meant to provide you with meals and get you through the semester. It’s helping them be a little more financially responsible.”
The other change is to the amount of flex dollars allocated towards incoming freshman.
This academic year, student meal plans included $750 for flex spending, but beginning Fall 2019, meal plans for the incoming freshmen class will only include $200.
Jensen said that this change follows other patterns of other schools.
“Similar to a lot of colleges and universities, we are on a path now where two things are happening: one, the flex dollars are significant as you look at other universities. The other thing that is happening is the additional dollars are going back into their financial aid package,” he said. “Instead of having it in their flex account, the goal is to actually give them additional dollars in financial aid.”
Jensen said it will be beneficial to students to have additional money on their financial aid because “over 90% of our students are receiving financial aid.”
Reniff said that another motivation behind lower the amount of flex dollars for freshman related to textbook purchasing. Reniff said most of the money on students’ flex went towards buying textbooks, but with competitive textbook sources such as Amazon and Chegg, students were not using that money any longer to purchase textbooks.
“Typically, it didn’t have to be spent on books, but typically, it was used for their book bills. We are finding more and more there are other sources for students to get books,” said Reniff.
Because students have many external options for textbook purchasing, the decision was made to eliminate money allocated to flex accounts, said Reniff.
“There is a more inexpensive way for them to do it. So we thought the financial benefit was to take those dollars and give them in financial aid so it can reduce their overall tuition,” said Reniff.
Jensen said students can still spend their flex dollars on a range of options, like “vending, bookstore, also off campus facilities such as Dominos and Boca Loca.”
Money will also roll over from the Fall semester to the Spring semester, said Jensen, but at the end of a school year, flex money will not carry over to the next academic year.
“At the end of the day, these dollars will transfer over no matter what the level is. Any student that had dollars in their balance, as far as December is concerned, they rolled over to the spring,” said Jensen. “Come the end of the school year however, they have to spend it all.”
Reniff said though incoming students will experience a change in allocated flex dollars, current students will not be affected by the change.
“When the upperclassmen were freshmen and came here, they were told they had $750 in flex, so we didn’t want to just take it away from them—we wanted to grandfather them,” said Reniff. “Though upperclassmen know they still have the $750 flex money, it is now advertised for incoming students that they will receive the $200. We figure it was fair to grandfather everybody and then pitch the policy to incoming freshmen.”
“We understand change is new and different, but it will be for the best,” said Reniff.